WHAT IT IS
Baptism comes from the Greek word baptizein, which means to immerse or plunge.
It consists of exposing a person to water three times amid the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The individual can be immersed in water, or it can be poured over their head. The ritual is usually performed by a priest or deacon, but can be validly performed by anyone with the valid intention — even a non-Christian if necessary.
WHAT IT DOES
Baptism washes away the consequences of original sin and initiates the person into a relationship with Jesus Christ. He or she enters into the priesthood of believers and receives an indelible mark on their soul. Because it’s the work of God and not of man, it cannot be undone by any sin or action of the individual. It cannot be repeated.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” – Mk 16:16
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Mt 28:19-20
“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” Jn 3:5.
This section of John’s Gospel merits further attention because the mention of “water” is sometimes misunderstood as the release of amniotic fluid in the process of a baby being delivered. This is incorrect because in the preceding verses, Jesus makes clear that he’s not talking about the physical act of birth.
Nicodemus says “Surely one cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus then says “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” He then adds “what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit…you must be born from above.”
There have also been translation errors over the years. Jesus initially says to Nicodemus:
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jn 3:3
The original Greek contains the adverb “anothen,” which can mean either “from above” or “again.” Jesus clearly means “from above” and not “again” because he clarifies his position by saying that people must be born of “water and spirit.” Furthermore, a few verses later, the same “anothen” is translated as “from above.”
He who comes from above is above all. He who has his origin in the earth is of the earth, and speaks of earthly things. Jn 3:31
The centrality of baptism to Christian life stands out in this part of John’s Gospel, which is rich in baptismal references:
- Jn 1:29-34 recounts the Baptism of Jesus
- Jn 2:13-16 recounts the Cleansing of the Temple
- Jn 3:22-30 recounts the final days of John the Baptist
Jn 4: 4-26 recounts the Samaritan woman at the well. We know she is a sinner who’s shunned by other women because she’s at the well in the heat of the afternoon rather than the evening when others came. And Christ tells her “the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Acts of the Apostles includes several key passages on Baptism as well. After Peter makes his famous sermon in Acts 2:14-36, his audience asks, “what must we do?” Peter replies:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism was the first step in becoming a Christian from the very beginning.
Acts 8: 26-40 also contains an example of the importance of baptism as an entry into the life of a Christian. Here an Ethiopian official is reading from Isaiah 53, which prophesizes the coming of Christ. Philip the Evangelist explains to him that the Messiah has come, and the Ethiopian immediately requests to be baptized. He knows that belief alone is not enough. There is a further call to action that initiates one’s life as a new person in Christ.
The following chapter in Acts recounts the conversion of St. Paul. Originally a strong persecutor of the Church, Christ blinds him on the road to Damascus. He now knows that Jesus is God, but does not begin his own ministry until he is baptized by Ananias.
Baptism is tied to John the Baptist, who prepares the way of the Lord. This was not a happenstance event that happened around the time of Christ, but was foretold by the prophets Malachi (Mal 3:1-4) and Isaiah (Is 52,53) centuries prior. Likewise in our lives, the Sacrament of Baptism prepares the way of the Lord.
This process is paralleled in Genesis, where God sends the Great Flood as His first action to cleanse the world of sin. He then establishes the first covenant with Noah, followed by covenants with Abraham, Moses and David. The first step in this process of saving the world was an immersion and purification.
ORIGINS OF THE SACRAMENT
Baptism draws its origin from an ancient Jewish practice of Mikveh, a ritual immersion in water performed not just on people but also on objects such as cooking pots. Leviticus contains several instances of ritual purification, and it was one of the three key actions by converts to Judaism (along with circumcision and making a sacrifice to God). The Temple in the time of Christ housed a Mikveh pool, and the old rabbinical literature describes exact guidelines for their construction. Ritual cleansing by immersion was also necessary before the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). For example:
“Aaron shall wear the sacred linen tunic, with the linen drawers next to his flesh, gird himself with the linen sash and put on the linen miter. But since these vestments are sacred, she shall not wear them until he has first bathed his body in water.” Lv 16:4.
The main difference between ancient Judaism and Christianity is that Mikveh was performed frequently as an act of purification, while Baptism occurs only once in a person’s life. It opens the door to all other Sacraments.
Infant vs Adult?
While most people baptized in the Bible are adults, this is not true for all. For instance in Acts 3:39, St. Peter says “the promise is made to you and to your children.”
Several other passages in Acts shows that infants and children could be baptized:
- Acts 10:47-48 recounts the baptism of Cornelius’s entire household.
- Acts 16:15 recounts the baptism of Lydia’s entire household.
- The Jewish practice of circumcision (See Lv 12:2) eight days after a boy’s birth is the model for infant baptism. First-born sons were also consecrated to Yahweh at the Temple with a sacrifice according to Ex 12:2. Mary and Joseph fulfill these obligations for Jesus in Luke 21-24.
- Under the Old Covenant, parents had the obligation and authority to bring their children into a relationship with God. This continues in the New Covenant with Baptism, which replaces circumcision as the sacrament of initiation in Acts 15.
- The idea that circumcision as the new baptism also appears in Colossians 2:11-12: “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Given that circumcision was performed on Jewish boys eight days after birth according to Gen 17:12, Paul is clearly speaking in favor of infant baptism.
- Acts 16:31-34 recounts how Paul baptizes his jailer’s entire family. This passage is also important because Paul first tells the guard,” believe in the Lord Jesus and your household will be saved.” This sense of belief is immediately followed by Baptism, which demonstrates that Christians are called to more than simple belief. This follows the same pattern as the Ethiopian official in Acts 8. Faith alone is insufficient. We are called to act and to follow as the Apostles did:
“Jesus called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” Mt 4:22
The Bible also contains examples of individuals in positions of authority making faith decisions for individuals under their care:
- Mk 9:22-25 Jesus exorcises a possessed child based on the father’s faith.
- Mt 8-5:15 The centurion’s servant is cured by his master’s faith.
- 1 Cor 7:14 Children are sanctified by the belief of a parent
- Ex 12:24-28 parents had to participate in Passover or their children would be killed.
Other Kinds of Baptism
Many people ask the question: What about good, moral people who are not baptized? Are they lost?
The answer is “absolutely not.” God, after all, instituted the Sacraments for man — not the other way around. Our Lord is not bound by the Sacraments, and knows the hearts and wills of all people. Other forms of Baptism therefore exist:
Baptism of blood: Those who die for the faith without being baptized in water are equally initiated into God’s family.
Baptism of desire: Those who die planning to be baptized, such as catechumens, are saved by their intention.
Baptism of implicit desire: Those who seek truth and do the will of God according to their understanding are also saved. It is believed that they would have desired Baptism had they known its necessity. This group includes members of other religions who have not yet heard the Gospel.
Unbaptized infants: Based on Christ’s love for children in Mk 10:14, the Church teaches that these babies are also saved.
The key point is that all people are different, and we must never resort to simplistic legalism. Those who understand the importance of Baptism must receive the Sacrament to be saved, because much is required from the person to whom much is given. (See LK 12:47-48.)